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Tuesday, April 16

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Welcome back to "The 22 Books List," a project to come up with a short list of definitive, readable books about every part of the planet. In the first column, I gave you my picks for East and Central Asia. In this second installment I move on to two other areas: the Pacific and Africa.

I've got to be honest with you, Africa is not my area of speciality. Given this, it's almost impossible to come up with a good summary. On the other hand, I'm a world expert on Papua New Guinea and, I suppose, the Pacific more generally. For that reason I'll start with Africa and move on to the Pacific, where my suggestions are more informed.


Africa is one of the largest and most culturally and geographically diverse continents around. Above the Sahara, it is part of the circum-medditeranean. After Muhhamed, Islam spread across the north and eastern coastal strips and made forays into the interior. West Africa has long been a center for trade and regional empires. The south has been the site of intensive European settlement. How can you even begin to tap into this vast and complex land? Here are two books that should get you going.

Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader
John Reader's biography of this continent starts with his own -- his immigration to Africa as a teen. Throughout his long history as a journalist and photographer, Reader has sharpened his prose style and deepened his knowledge of countries throughout the region. This book has a little bit of everything you'd want -- geography, politics, culture, and history. Written by a journalist for the educated lay reader, Reader knows exactly the sorts of questions that readers have and answers them plainly and simply, but you never doubt for a second that there isn't a wealth of knowledge behind his explanations. Great maps and a decent concluding section on decolonization and independence round out a solid, readable account of all things African.

The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1867 to 1912, by Thomas Packenham
Ever wonder how the map of Africa got to be the shape it is? Packenham's account of colonial politicking in Africa is the definitive account. Scrupulously detailed and well-written, this is the book that will tell you the difference between Niger and Nigeria and how it got to be that way. Be warned, though, this book is not for the faint-hearted. If you are the kind of person who reads "The Economist" or "New Republic," or if you love to discuss the details of Democratic politics in the Windy City, then you'll love this book. If you're not, then the welter of names and diplomacy may overwhlem you. It's not that Packenham is a bad writer -- his style is lucid and clear -- nor is it that he's overly technical. It's just that this is the nitty-gritty. If you persevere, the map of contemporary Africa will make perfect sense to you -- and you'll never have to read another book on the history of Africa.

The Pacific

At first it seems obvious what the Pacific is -- it's a huge ocean. When most people think of "the Pacific," they think of Polynesa -- that massive scattering of islands that starts more or less in Fiji and spreads east to Hawaii and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Polynesia along with Melanesia (Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and the Solomon Islands) and Micronesia (the small atolls and islands north of Melanesia) make up what we might want to call "Oceania." But the Pacific is more than that. It includes the British settler colonies on Australia and New Zealand, as well as the indigenous populations that those settlers ran up against. To take in the full scope of the Pacific involves an even wider scope -- Japanese expansion, trade to China, Russian expansion into Alaska and all the way down into California, not to mention Spanish and American expansion into what is now the west coast of the United States. Honestly, where does one begin? Let me tell you about my two favorite books about the Pacific, and then list some runners-up.

Let The Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to Macarthur, by Walter McDougall
Walter McDougall is a Pulitzer Award-winning scholar, and reading this book it's easy to see why. In Let the Sea Make a Noise McDougall tells the story of the north Pacific through the triangulation of Japanese, American, and Russian power. Larded with equal parts Hawaiian history and Spanish introjections, McDougall's book is peppered with dialogues between famous people who never actually met. In it we see Padre Junipero Serra, the man who missionized California, talk with Hawaiian Queen Kalaniopu and William Seward. McDougall manages to tie together a hundred different histories which normally are considered separately and combines them together into a coherent narrative of how human beings crossed -- and made sense of -- the North Pacific over 500 years. Deeply erudite and yet marvelously easy to read, this is one of my favorite books and a perfect example of how to write history.

A History of the Pacific Islands: Passages Through Tropical Time, by Deryck Scarr
There are many short histories of the Pacific Islands, but Scarr's is the most up-to-date and the most respectful and appreciatve of Islands culture and knowledge. This book is thankfully free of stereotypes of "tropical paradise" and "happy, friendly natives," and Scarr's familiarity with the region means that he can tune into the reality of life in the Pacific. Scarr is also more than capable of waxing poetic about life in the islands and the peculiarities of reef and tide. Unfortunately, his waxing tends to get a little confusing -- it may be lyrical but it's also a little difficult to figure out what the hell he's talking about. Still, the Pacific is not the sort of area that is on the radar of the average American, and I think it's great that a concise, reader-friendly history of the entire region is available. This is a valuable addition to anyone's book shelves.

Runners Up:

The problem with this list is that it doesn't include any discussion of Australia or New Zealand, which really have a very different history than the rest of the Pacific due to the strong settler presence there. So if I had my druthers, I'd add four more books to the list. On The Road of the Winds by Patrick Kirch is a definitive synthesis of Pacific prehistory -- it covers everything from archaeology, natural history, and the techniques behind the navigation that got people all the way from Asia to Honolulu. It also has very cool pictures. Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark regularly slug it out for the crown of "Australia's Greatest Historian," but while Manning Clark's A Short History of Australia is a condensation of his multi-volume, definitive (and at times leaden) masterwork, Blainey's A Shorter History of Australia is all gimlet eye and sharp Aussie wit. Blainey's chapter on the centrality of sport in Australian culture, for instance, starts with a man whose claim to fame in the late nineteenth century was being able to out-race locomotives while holding a goat. For New Zealand, there is simply no substitute for James Belich's Making Peoples and Paradise Reforged, which take the reader through from the Maori arrival in New Zealand up to the turn of this millennium. There is simply no other scholar who writes as well and knows so much -- and there is certainly no other scholar who takes as seriously the idea that Maori are as central to New Zealand's history as its white settlers.

Alex Golub is a graduate student who studies anthropology at the University of Chicago and blogs at

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